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February 1 2009 | BRUNEI


Sultan Bolkiah commutes death sentence of a Filipino man, granting the request of Gloria Arroyo

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Brunei sultan commutes death penalty

By Joel Guinto

MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE 2) The Sultan of Brunei, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, granted the request of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to commute the death sentence of a Filipino worker convicted of murder in the oil-rich sultanate, an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

Arroyo and Bolkiah held bilateral meetings at the Bahay Pangarap (House of Hope) in the Malacañang complex on Friday, part of the Sultan's three-day state visit to the country.

"The President appealed to the Sultan of Brunei for clemency, to save the life of Edgar Puzon, and the Sultan of Brunei right there and then made the decision...He said he is going to commute the sentence from death to life imprisonment," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Esteban Conejos told reporters.

But Arroyo made it clear to Bolkiah that she was not condoning the murder, especially since Puzon was convicted for killing a Filipina in 2003, Conejos, who was present during the bilateral meeting, said.

A Brunei court upheld Puzon's conviction in 2007, and he has been on death row since, Conejos said.

During the meeting, Bolkiah also assured Arroyo that Filipino workers are welcome in Brunei, citing the 22 Filipinos in his Palace staff, the DFA official said.

"Sabi niya ang galing ng mga workers natin [He said our workers are very good]. He said Brunei is open for more Filipino workers," Conejos said.

According to DFA estimates, there are roughly 22,000 Filipinos working in Brunei, 52 to 60 percent of them skilled workers, he said.

Also during the meeting, Bolkiah granted Arroyo's other request, to increase his country's contingent to the International Monitoring Team (IMT) overseeing a ceasefire between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao, Conejos said.

The Brunei contingent to the IMT will be increased to 30 from 10, once the tream’s mandate is renewed, the DFA officer said.

The IMT’s mandate expired November 30 last year and its renewal will be on the agenda of informal talks the government hopes to start with MILF.

"That's part of our requet for their support to the peace and development efforts in Mindanao,'' Conejos told reporters. "So the moment we activate the mandate, then Brunei is prepared to increase their commitment from 10 to 30.''

Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ralph Recto, who attended the meeting, said that Brunei could even head the IMT.

"We expect them to do more as well -- that they could head the international delegation in monitoring the peace process,'' he told reporters.

Malaysia has agreed to serve as a third-party facilitator in informal talks between the government and the MILF, according to Foreign Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, chair of the government peace panel.

"We requested Malaysia to bring us together again to the negotiating table ASAP. They said yes,'' he said in a phone interview.

Seguis flew to Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday and met with Malaysian foreign ministry officials to inform them that the government was ready to resume talks with the separatist rebels.

"They gave no date for convening the talks. They have to consult the MILF. As facilitator, they'll be the one to convene the talks,'' he said.

If the talks resume, the renewal of the mandate and composition of the IMT; renewal of the Ad-Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), and the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of hostilities would top the agenda, according to Seguis.

Bolkiah also announced that technology firm Telstar would invest in the Philippines.

In return, Arroyo, on Bolkiah's request, will send teams to Brunei to study the country's capacity for rice production and see if a roll-on-roll-off network similar to the one in the Philippines can be set up there, Conejos said.

The International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI), whose operations include the Philippines, will also develop a major Brunei port, he said.

Bolkiah and his party were given full military honors upon their arrival at the Bahay Pangarap late Friday morning.

Later Friday evening, Arroyo will host a state dinner for Bolkiah, and will confer him with the Order of Lakandula with the rank of Supremo or Grand Collar, the highest honor that the Philippine government can bestow upon a foreigner.

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